Don’t be fooled by the title of Holly Robinson’s debut play soft animals; despite the plethora of teddy bears scattered around the room, there’s nothing particularly cuddly about this hard-hitting two-hander. Directed by Lakesha Arie-Angelo, the play tackles grief and guilt through the surprising friendship of two very different women connected by a devastating tragedy: Sarah (Ellie Piercy), a well-off soon-to-be divorcee living in Fulham, and Frankie (Bianca Stephens), a black teenager from Birmingham struggling to cope with the demands of both uni and life.
The tragedy is Sarah’s – the loss of a child in horrifying circumstances and subsequent nationwide condemnation of her as a mother and a woman – while Frankie’s direct involvement in the events of that day bring her to Sarah’s doorstep several months later. Over time the two become friends, though the dynamic of that friendship shifts constantly, and ultimately allows each to begin to see a way forward out of their own personal darkness.
The performances from Ellie Piercy and Bianca Stephens are perfectly pitched, the two of them bouncing off each other well as they deliver Robinson’s fast-paced, witty script. But there’s genuine tenderness between them too; if you can make it to the end of the play without at least a bit of a lump in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. While Stephens is instantly likeable as the anxious and painfully vulnerable Frankie, Piercy’s Sarah doesn’t try too hard to win our sympathy, if anything going out of her way to make us – and the rest of the world – hate her because that’s what she thinks she deserves. It’s only by seeing her through Frankie’s eyes, behind closed doors, that we come to understand and feel for everything she’s gone through, and to question our own readiness to judge a total stranger based only on what we think we know of their crimes.
Just as the script reveals little by little the details of what happened, so too does Anna Reid’s deceptively simple set. Beginning as a single cube in the centre of the stage, it comes apart piece by piece to populate Sarah’s living room with furniture, with one final reveal towards the end reminding us forcefully of the gaping absence at the heart of the story. This is reinforced throughout by the appearance of soft toys from London’s various tourist attractions, which sit sadly around the room as a reminder that there’s nobody here to love and play with them.
soft animals is an incredibly accomplished debut from Holly Robinson, tackling difficult themes with great sensitivity while also drawing us in with a compelling story. The friendship between Sarah and Frankie is unlikely but entirely believable, and each character feels authentic despite her unusual and tragic circumstances. This is a powerful piece of new writing that will break your heart – but then might just quietly put it back together again. Highly recommended.